This Christmas - Live in Chicago
few years ago in the movie The 40-Year Old Virgin, there was a
running gag in which the manager of a large electronics superstore (played
by a pre-Glee Jane Lynch) would torture her employees by playing the
same Michael McDonald concert video on all the store’s monitors over and
over again during the day.
movie is undoubtedly being way too hard on McDonald, who does have arguably
one of the greatest blue-eyed soul voices ever and who is responsible for
much fine music over a career that is reaching out towards four decades.
However this little joke does point something very basic out; Michael
McDonald has not been cool for many years – if he ever was.
concert video is further proof, because there is nothing the slightest bit
hip or cutting edge about it, however if you take it on its own cheesy
terms, it is rather enjoyable. Full of strong singing (McDonald’s voice is
still a wondrous instrument, even if it is a little more raggedy than it was
in his prime), swinging music, diversity of styles, very capable middle-aged
sidemen, a slideshow background and lots of music about the most wonderful
time of the year (to paraphrase one of the many holiday standards which
did not make the cut here.)
fact, the concert has the undeniable scent of a PBS pledge week special –
and, in fact, it turns out it was recorded for the PBS series Soundstage.
show was recorded in 2009 a few
years after his second Christmas album
Through the Many Winters was released. He had also done a 2001 holiday
disc called In the Spirit, and most of the holiday songs in This
Christmas come from either one or the other of these albums.
McDonald bookends twelve holiday tunes with six old favorites of his own
(four Doobie Brothers hits and two solo singles) as well as a bonus cover of
Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – which was undoubtedly chosen for its
religious-sounding title and gospel-tinged choruses, but anyone who has ever
listened to the lyrics knows that it is as far from a spiritual holiday
piece as can be. It’s actually about love, sex, obsession and betrayal
reaching a nearly religious fervor, but McDonald tries to camouflage this
secular meaning by skipping the first two stanzas of the song and changing
the arrangement so radically that the lyrics are nearly impossible to make
out. (Clear enunciation has never been McDonald’s strong-suit, anyway – and
this song is all about the lyrics.)
However, if “Hallelujah” does not quite fit the festive atmosphere of the
proceedings (and perhaps that is why it is only included as a bonus track),
the rest of the Christmas choices are more fitting and similarly
adventurous. In fact, of all the hundreds of holiday standards which
McDonald could decide to cover, six of the twelve songs included (assuming
you consider a medley of “White Christmas” and “Winter Wonderland” as two
separate songs) were unfamiliar. At least a few of which – and I can’t
claim to know for sure how many – were McDonald originals.
Musically, the Christmas tunes were rather diverse, from the reggaefied take
of “Come, O Come Emanuel” to a zydeco-laced “Christmas on the Bayou” to an
adventurous ragtime arrangement of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” This
musical quirkiness doesn’t always work – “Winter Wonderland” is tweaked so
violently that it is just barely recognizable. Sometimes McDonald plays it
straight, as well, such as on the modern R&B seasonal favorites such as the
title track and Stevie Wonder’s “That’s What Christmas Means to Me.”
Also, knowing that the people will probably mutiny if he doesn’t touch on
some of his hits, McDonald good-naturedly opens the proceedings with a
spirited run-through of the Doobie fave “It Keeps You Running” as well as
passionate takes on solo jams “I Keep Forgettin’” and “Sweet Freedom.” Then
he closes out on a high note with a three-peat of Doobie classics, including
an ecstatic “Minute By Minute,” a still wonderfully propulsive “What a Fool
Believes” (a song which never gets tired, no matter how many tens of
thousands of times you have heard it on the radio since its 1978 release)
and a romp through “Taking It To the Streets.”
course, the holiday theme gives this DVD a very limited shelf life – very
few people will likely pull it out to watch it during the rest of the year.
Still, This Christmas is a very enjoyable – if just kinda sappy –
look at a wily old musical pro who still has game.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2010 PopEntertainment.com.
All rights reserved. Posted: October 3, 2010.